"Happy host families are all alike; every unhappy host family is unhappy in its own way."My host mom came home one afternoon with a great big plastic bag full of crap. I was reading on the porch. She reached into the bag and pulled out a teal green t-shirt. She unfurled it in front of me. I saw that it had racecars on the front. The hounds of dread bayed from the very depths of my bowels.
- Leo "Tolstoy" Garbleson (TLG Volunteer, Samegrelo Province, Class of 1972)
"So. What do you think?"
"Try it on."
"But - "
I looked around, searching all of spacetime for a zippered pocket to climb out through.
"Nothing," I said. "I'll go try it on."
I went to my room and paced around its perimeter. The wood creaked and groaned under my Pumas. I launched into a soliloquy of sorts, the kind of monologue between internal and external where you gesticulate and mouth foul words to yourself without making so much as a sound. The t-shirt lay spread out across my bed. It was at least a double-XL, the size of a national flag. Criminy, I mouthed, I'm not that fat!
I'm colorblind, so I've never fully experienced teal, but this shirt was the sort of color that violated even my stunted sense of sartorial taste. And like I said, there were fucking racecars on the front.
Finally, after a moment of meditation, in which I sat at the edge of my bed with my fingers massaging my forehead and my palm shielding my eyes from the absurdity of the life I'd so freely chosen for myself, I unbuttoned the dress shirt I'd worn to work, navigating the sleeve somewhat skillfully over the bazooka of a cast entombing my left arm, and I put on the racecar shirt. Then I took my paisley patterned sling and slung it over my neck, stuck my busted arm through the sling. I walked over to the mirror. I wanted to beat the shit out of my own reflection. I looked like some sort of white trash time-traveling trainwreck. I saw that there was a price tag stuck to the front of the shirt. Fifteen lari. I wasn't sure whether that meant the shirt was a bargain or an egregious waste of money that would've been better spent on any salable object in the known universe. Pretty sure the latter, seeing how we'd all been eating cucumbers for a month. Either way, I thought I'd play it safe and leave the price tag on.
I trudged out to the porch, shamefaced as a shaven dog. My host mom clapped her hands. My host sister nodded approvingly. My host brother sat motionless with his arms crossed; he knew the score. I did a little pirouette, then I went back to my room, removed the shirt, and locked myself in with Tolstoy for the remainder of the evening.
You'd think that would've been the end of it, but the next morning, my host mom refused to let me go to school until I'd changed out of what I was wearing and put on the shirt. I contended that it was cold - and indeed it was - but in the end, I was badgered into wearing it as an undershirt. Later, in the teacher's lounge, my host mom got me to lift up my sweater so that seven fluorescent yellow racecars could come zooming out from my torso, and the old ladies applauded. What a good host mother you have, she buys you t-shirts with racecars on the front, et cetera.
As the weeks walked by and the northern hemisphere warmed, it became harder and harder for me to find a convincing excuse to not be wearing the shirt at all times, short of coming out and telling my host mom directly that I hated it because it made me look like a child. In retrospect, that is precisely the tact I ought to have taken. Instead, I remained polite, lowered my head, hemmed and hawed and mumbled whenever the shirt came up. Why aren't you wearing your shirt? I wore it yesterday. You wear the same thing every day all the time! But it's not clean? None of your clothes are clean! I don't like racecars? You watch auto racing every day with your brother! (This latter was true, but only because, as far as Georgian satellite TV went, auto racing was marginally preferable to the Turkmenistani Comedy Hour.)
Things finally came to a head towards the ass-end of my first semester. A friend of mine in the next town over was having her students put on a choral concert. It was something of a farewell concert, too, because she was leaving Georgia a couple weeks after. In short, it was a formal occasion. I put on a dress shirt, a tie, and my best suit coat (which also happens to be my worst suit coat). I'd ironed some slacks the night before by stacking a row of books across them and leaving them atop the Soviet-era upright piano. The next afternoon, on my way out the door, I bumped into my host mom coming home from school.
"You are going to the concert?"
"Yes, I'm going to the concert. See you later!"
"Wait," she said. "Where's your shirt?"
I tugged at my collar.
"No," she said, "your shirt."
"I'm wearing two of them."
A standoff, so it was.
"You know the shirt," she said. "You know, the shirt."
"I know the shirt."
"So why aren't you wearing it?"
I said nothing.
"Go put it on," she said.
"It's a concert," I said. "Suit. Tie. Pants."
"I'm already late. I've got to go."
I dribbled forward and she boxed out the lane. Basketball fundamentals. I juked left. She mirror juked right. The shirt, the shirt, the shirt. This went on for an unbelievably long time.
Imagine for a moment a 29 year old man showing up to a choir concert in a XXXL teal green t-shirt with racecars zipping across the front. I wasn't having it. And my host mom, all of 35, wasn't having it from her end, either. Like I said: it was a standoff, so it was. I would be inclined to say that I prevailed in the end, except that as I was making my way down the stairs, I realized that I had no idea what time the marshrutka into town came by. So I was thrust back into the role of the dependent, racecar-t-shirt-wearing host child.
"Uh, hey, mom," I said over my shoulder. "When's the next marshrutka?"
"3:30," she murmured.
A glance at my watch: it was 2:30. The concert was at five. Determined not to show up a sweaty, bedraggled mess, I opted not to walk the eight kilometers into town and sat down instead with my host brother in the living room and watched auto racing for about a half hour.
When I went out to the front lawn to catch the marshrutka, my host mom tagged along. 3:30 came and went. No marshrutka.
"Say, Levani," she called to a neighbor. "When is the last marshrutka into town?"
"Same as it ever was," said the neighbor. "2:30."
"Oops," said my host mom. "You'd better start walking."
Suffice it to say, I missed the concert.
I don't mean to slag off on my Georgian host family more than I ought to. Really, I thought they were wonderful people. If nothing else, they kept me alive for ten months, despite my best efforts. But to quote Garbleson (1972), "every unhappy host family is unhappy in its own way." And there were times in which I was very unhappy, indeed.
Tragically, I do not have any pictures of the t-shirt, or of myself wearing the t-shirt. If I recall correctly, I included the t-shirt in my outgoing trash the very night of the concert I missed. I was in a foul mood. Waste not, want not, I know; but also true: waste if you want not. More to the point: I don't have many pictures of anything from Georgia, because someone in my host family ransacked my room, found my camera, used it, destroyed it, and returned it to my desk drawer as though nothing had happened - and that was well before any of this had happened.
So there was that.